This mural of King Billy (William of Orange) is to be found on a wall in Belfast, northern Ireland. It is one of many hundreds of such murals in Belfast, all referring to historical events (this one of Protestant William’s victory over the forces of the Catholic James at the Battle of Boyne in 1690). Nor is this the only form of evidence of history to be seen as you wander the streets of this handsome city. There are statues and war memorials, there are historic plaques on houses, there are large metal signposts which tell the story of particular streets, and there are many museums – the Ulster museum with a gripping exhibition about ‘The Troubles’, a Titanic museum which presents the story of building that fateful ship, a Somme museum in honour of the 36th (Ulster) Division from the Great War.
There are so many signs of history because in Northern Ireland the contested identities of its people are forged through history. The Protestant community expresses itself through marches on 12 July (the anniversary of the Battle of Boyne) and by remembrance events on 1 July (the day the 36th Division suffered grievance losses on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916). The Catholic community remembers the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916 which sparked the Irish rebellion from British authority, and it recalls the events of ‘The Troubles’ such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry on 30 January 1972 when 28 civilians were shot during a march protesting Catholic internment.
How does this centrality of history alter the task of the historian? This was the question that I pondered repeatedly during a fascinating conference on public history at Queen’s University in Belfast last week. The conference marked the opening of a new Centre for Public History at the university. I had been invited to speak about public history in New Zealand. But I increasingly wondered whether the New Zealand situation had any lessons at all for public historians in Northern Ireland. For many people in New Zealand history is not the centre of group identity. Most Pākehā find their national identity in other ways. We think about our landscape and the image of ‘beautiful New Zealand’, we think of our sporting successes (many of them in the past, I grant) but very much expressed through the continuing triumphs of our rugby players and yachtsman. We pride ourselves on our wines, and our film-makers. Far from history defining us, we often point to our freedom from tradition and our willingness to think afresh as a social laboratory. The only part of New Zealand society where history is hugely defining is the Māori community where ancestors and inherited memories of war and suffering are central to tribal and ethnic identity.
In the New Zealand case therefore, unless you are primarily a Māori historian, the role of the public historian is to awaken people to their history; to capture people’s imaginations with dramatic stories of our past; and to show how much history has indeed shaped us. We must become cheer-leaders for history and use all our communication techniques and methods – from creative writing, to films, to gripping exhibitions, to interesting websites and well-interpreted historical places. We have to go out and win an audience for history.
In Northern Ireland, I began to realise, the challenge is very different. You need to confront people’s entrenched beliefs about history and gently shake them up. This is not always well-received. A young scholar at the conference, Jason Bourke, had been investigating the history of a war memorial in East Belfast. The memorial was widely considered in the community to express the sacrifice of the Protestant young men in the Great War especially through service in the 36th (Ulster) Division. But Jason discovered by looking at the names on the memorial that the story was more complex. Several of the men honoured turned out to be Catholics who had served with the Irish 16th Division from the south. His discoveries were not well received. One day a local shouted across the road , ‘We are not up for your revisionism’. In such a situation the challenge of the public historian is not to awaken interest in history but to find ways of gently asking new questions and delivering new truths. Jason himself used highly creative techniques. He held a kind of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ where he invited people to bring along heirlooms from the Great War which he would help interpret. The discoveries were then posted on a website and used in an exhibition at the local museum.
For other historians in this situation the task must simply be to tell the truth in as accurate and clear way as possible. The conference was in honour of a very great Queen’s historian, Keith Jeffery, who died in 2015. Keith wrote a magnificent book on Ireland and the First World War. There, among other contributions, he documented the very large numbers (over 40,000) of Catholic Irish from the South who had fought in the war, a contribution which had been repressed for identity reasons in both the independent south and the Protestant north.
But it is not easy disturbing ideas when identity has been forged through the past. Another paper I enjoyed came from Jessica Moody who told about the extent to which the stately homes of Britain and Ireland had been built upon the profits made through slavery – either through the slave trade or through wealth accumulated in West Indian possessions. One country house features a stairwell where the handrails are held up by carved representations of slaves. The trouble is that those who visit country houses tend to go because they want their sense of the glorious British heritage reinforced. They are not interested in having their illusions shattered, or be made to feel uncomfortable.
In the end I began slowly to realise that my learnings as a public historian in New Zealand were in fact of more relevance in Belfast than I suspected. Whether it is awakening an ignorant community with little interest in the past to the relevance of history (as in New Zealand) or whether it is finding ways to present new thoughts and insights to a community for whom history forges identity, the historian must still develop techniques of creative communication. The tools of the public historian – engaging writing, interactive websites, dramatic television films or plays, stirring exhibitions – they must be used in both communities. In the end history does matter, whether in New Zealand or Northern Ireland, and encouraging people to think about the past in accurate and new ways is a crucial obligation.